About The Production
Christopher Nolan has taken audiences from the streets of Gotham City, to the
infinite world of dreams, to the farthest reaches of space. Now, for the first
time, the innovative director/writer/producer has turned his camera to a
real-life event, one that has resonated with him throughout his life: the
miracle of Dunkirk.
"Dunkirk" is based on the evacuation that-although it took place in the early
months of World War II-had a direct impact on the outcome of the war. Rather
than make a battlefield drama, however, Nolan's objective was to turn this
historical moment into immediate, immersive cinema: a propulsive, ticking-clock,
epic action thriller in which the stakes couldn't be higher.
He affirms, "What happened at Dunkirk is one of the greatest stories in human
history, the ultimate life-or-death race against time. It was an extraordinarily
suspenseful situation; that's the reality. Our aim with this movie was to throw
the audience into that with an absolute respect for history, but also with a
degree of intensity and, of course, a sense of entertainment, too."
Nolan's longtime producing partner, Emma Thomas, offers, "'Dunkirk' is a huge
spectacle film, but also a very human story and, in that way, it's universal.
Chris wanted to put the audience in the center of the experience along with the
characters, whether they be the soldiers on the beach, the pilots in the air, or
the civilians on the boats."
The remarkable true story that inspired the fictional film is one that has
fascinated Nolan for many years "and one I've been wanting to tell for quite
some time," he says. "Like most British people, I was raised on the mythical
story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the victory that was snatched from the
jaws of defeat," he relates. "It's a massive part of our culture. It's in our
The story began in late May 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force, along
with French, Belgian and Canadian troops were forced back to the beaches of
Dunkirk. Though home was just 26 miles away, there was no easy way to reach it.
The shallow-drafted beach, with its 21-foot tide, prohibited the large British
naval ships from rescuing the men. But there was hope: a call had gone out for
small boats to aid the effort and a flotilla of non-military "little ships"
sailed out from the southern coast of England to bring the men home, codenamed
The film's historical consultant, Joshua Levine, author of the book Forgotten
Voices of Dunkirk, emphasizes that the 1940 evacuation is far more than just a
British story. "It was a massive event that still has international
significance. Everything that's celebrated about World War II-in Britain, in the
United States, and all around the world-would not have happened without the
Dunkirk evacuation taking place. It was unbelievably important. If the British
army had been killed or taken prisoner, Britain would almost certainly have
surrendered, and we'd likely be living in a very different world today. To me,
Dunkirk is about the preservation of freedom. Once those ships were underway,
the world still had a chance."
Kenneth Branagh, who plays the British naval commander, agrees. "Your life and
mine would have been profoundly changed had that courageous, brave, patient,
impossible moment not been lived through by people who stuck at it, and in so
doing protected all of our futures. Its place in our military, social,
political, and emotional history can never be underestimated. In a sense, you
could look at an evacuation as being unheroic, but somehow it adds up to
something phenomenally heroic about the human spirit."
In fact, the rescue of their stranded army against seemingly impossible odds
gave rise to a term that is a permanent part of the British cultural lexicon:
"the Dunkirk spirit." Thomas defines, "It's something English people pride
themselves on: that sort of plucky grit and determination in the face of
Mark Rylance, who plays the captain of one of the little ships, concurs, "It has
a deep meaning for the English people. We were the underdogs on that beach, but
we rose to the occasion and eluded the superior forces of the enemy at that
time. The Dunkirk spirit has to do with that perseverance and endurance and also
Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who takes on the role of one of the young British
soldiers on the beach, says, "The Dunkirk spirit brings to my mind a sense of
togetherness and a show of community-coming together to help out someone in
It was with a friend on his small sailing boat-similar to those that formed the
"little ships"-that Nolan and Thomas first visited Dunkirk during the mid-1990s.
The trip would give them a whole new appreciation for the seminal event they had
only read about. Hampered by rough seas and bad weather, the voyage across the
Channel unexpectedly took 19 hours. "It was a very arduous crossing," Nolan
recalls, "and that was with nobody dropping bombs on us. What really stuck with
me was just how extraordinary it was, the notion of civilians taking small boats
into a war zone. They could see the smoke and the fires for many miles, so their
willingness to do that and what that says about communal spirit are
Nolan continues, "In looking at how to tell the story, I came fairly early on to
the idea of showing events from the land, sea and air: seeing the action from
the perspectives of the men on the beach, the people coming to help on the
boats, and the pilots trying to protect them from above. I was immediately
struck by the need to use a different time scale for each strand of the story
because the guys on the beach are there for the better part of a week in the
film, while the boat crossing takes place over the course of a long day, and the
action in the Spitfires involves a single hour. Each of those storylines-one
week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the air-had different temporal
characteristics, so in braiding them together editorially, I had to plot them
out very carefully. Intertwining these stories leads you through the events in a
very subjective way and allows you to understand the journey each of the
characters is on, while always trying to suggest that there are many other
unseen journeys. In an event of this magnitude, you can't possibly get a
comprehensive understanding of so many individual experiences in a single film."
Researching the script, Nolan read several books and firsthand accounts. He also
consulted extensively with Levine, whom he says, "very quickly understood the
tricky balance between entertainment and historical accuracy that we were trying
to strike. He also arranged for us to meet with some surviving veterans of
Operation Dynamo. It was a great, great honor to meet those people and hear
about their experiences and discover what Dunkirk meant to them."
"Nevertheless," Thomas notes, "Chris felt strongly that he didn't want to put
words in the mouths of these real-life heroes, or have to change their stories
for reasons of time or dramatic effect, and decided that the best way to
approach the story was to use fictional characters inspired by those elements he
discovered in doing his research."
Seeing the event through the eyes of just a few individual characters was
something that struck Branagh when he read the script. "Chris managed to weave
together a very human story that brings all those personal moments together
within this epic dimension," the actor states. "He is quite brilliant in my
view, a master filmmaker."
Rylance adds, "I don't imagine anyone else could have done a more faithful and
essential telling of this story in a more thrilling and exciting way. I think it
makes for an extraordinary movie-going experience."
Cast in his third Christopher Nolan film, Tom Hardy agrees. "Time and time
again, Chris consistently manages to raise the bar. He is a true professional
who doesn't leave a stone unturned or dismiss an opportunity. He's always in
control and set in his volition, but he is not inflexible. That's extremely
powerful for an artist. He's generous, sensitive, funny and incredibly
intelligent, and I trust him-if he says he's going to do something, he will."
To help him achieve his time-bending, threefold vision for the film, Nolan
collaborated with his creative team, including director of photography Hoyte van
Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland,
editor Lee Smith, special effects supervisor Scott Fisher and visual effects
supervisor Andrew Jackson.
Nolan's primary goal was to put the audience directly onto the beach, onboard
the boat traversing the Channel, and in the cockpit of the Spitfires. He had
been the first to use IMAX cameras in a major motion picture, for "The Dark
Knight," and has employed IMAX cameras on all of his subsequent films. But for
"Dunkirk," he expanded the use of large format-shooting the entire film with a
combination of IMAX and 65mm film, something, he confirms, "I've never done
before, but 'Dunkirk' is a huge story and it demanded an enormous canvas.
"The reason we were shooting on IMAX film," the director continues, "is that the
immersive quality of the image is second to none. When you sit in the movie
theatre, the screen disappears and you really get a very tactile sense of the
imagery. That lends itself to incredible panoramas and large-scale action. But
we've also found over the years that if you use it for more intimate situations,
it creates an immediacy that's very engaging. So our feeling was, if we could
find a way to do it physically, the payoff would be well worth it."
Another hallmark of Nolan's films is his preference for capturing the action
in-camera and eschewing digital effects and CGI as much as possible. "To me," he
clarifies, "it's always very important to try and work with real things and real
people. The resulting effect of that is very visceral and enveloping, and draws
you into the story."
That was equally true for the cast. Cillian Murphy, working with the director
for the fifth time, asserts, "I can only speak for myself, but I do think the
rest of the actors would attest to this as well: when you're in the environment
and things are happening for real, it leads to a more honest, truthful portrayal
of your character's journey."
Adding to the verisimilitude, the filmmakers, cast and crew were honored to have
the opportunity to film a portion of "Dunkirk" on the actual beach and at the
exact same time of year that the miraculous evacuation happened. There were some
logistical challenges, including inclement weather, rough seas, and the
construction of the mole: a narrow, kilometer-long, wood-boarded breakwater that
poked precariously out into the cold waters of the Channel. Nevertheless, Thomas
says it was the best possible choice. "The beach at Dunkirk is a singular
place," she states. "We looked at other options, but it became clear that it
would be difficult to replicate exactly the look we needed anywhere else. We all
felt very lucky to be able to shoot at the location where the event occurred."
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